Stanford Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Manu Prakash sees the world a little differently. He already made a scientific splash with a 50-cent origami-style paper microscope. Now he's tackling the world of chemistry sets.
The inspiration for Prakash's $5 chemistry set came from a small, hand-cranked music box. You turn the handle and feed a paper strip with punched holes through the music box. Inside the box is a comblike metal piece, with each strip sounding a different note. Each note has its own cog. When a tooth of the cog catches on a punched hole, the cog rotates and sounds the corresponding note.
Now, imagine using a similar mechanism to trigger the mixing of fluids to create chemical reactions. Prahash's device holds a microfluidics chip, which is like a lab-on-a-chip. It contains tiny channels etched or molded onto a silicon piece. The channels hold fluid. With Prakash's modified music-box concept, the punched holes trigger a pump that releases a drop of the fluid. The holes can be arranged to mix fluids from different channels in a certain order.
The original prototype was made with music box parts, but other versions incorporate 3D-printed pieces. The nature of the set means it can be reprogrammed simply by changing the punch holes.
"This is almost like digitizing fluids," says Prakash.
There's no need for fancy lab equipment, or even electricity, to make Prakash's invention work. Prakash and his assistant, graduate student George Korir, think the kit could be be used for water-quality and soil-chemistry testing or medical diagnostics, but that's just the beginning.
The real-world applications could be far-reaching. It could be handy out in the field and in developing countries. The inexpensive set could easily find its way into the hands of children or curious adults who want to learn more about chemistry.
The kit won a $50,000 award from the Science Play & Research Kit Competition to be used to further develop the concept into a product. It may not be too long before scientists and hobbyists alike are hand-cranking their way through chemistry experiments.